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CUPE says government has agreed to late Sunday afternoon deadline to reach a deal and avert strike
Nov. 18, 2022

The union representing school support workers says that it is prepared to “spend all weekend” at the negotiation table in an attempt to stave off a planned strike that could once again shutter schools.

CUPE’s Ontario School Board Council of Unions has released a statement, confirming that it is committed to resuming talks with the Ministry of Education ahead of a planned strike on Monday.

The union said that its leadership, as well as the ministry, has agreed to set a deadline of 5 p.m. on Sunday to get a deal in order “to provide parents and caregivers as much notice as possible” about a possible interruption to in-person learning.

Laura Walton, the president of CUPE's Ontario School Board Council of Unions, speaks to the media in Toronto on Wednesday, November 16, 2022, as the union gives notice of a strike action in their ongoing dispute with the Ontario government. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young

CUPE officials have, however, told CTV News Toronto that the deadline wouldn’t necessarily preclude talks from continuing if both sides are close to an agreement on Sunday night.

“The parties will spend all weekend at the table and we urge the government to return with the earnest intention of reaching a fair deal for students, families, and workers,” the statement notes.

The statement from CUPE comes as Ontario’s Ministry of Education asks school boards to pivot to remote learning next week if education workers strike on Monday.

That development was outlined in a memo obtained by CTV News Toronto earlier on Thursday afternoon.

“If a school board determines that it cannot maintain the healthy and safe operation of schools in-person, school boards must support students in a speedy transition to remote learning,” the memo reads.

A number of boards were already making plans to transition to remote learning with the prospect of a strike looming next week.

There appeared to be little movement in bargaining between the Ontario government and the union representing 55,000 educational support workers Thursday, with days left before another possible strike that could shut down Ontario schools.

But Education Minister Stephen Lecce said he's hopeful that the two sides will get back to the table.

“We really hope that those discussions will carry forward. Today and over the coming days, we expect there to be conversations,” Lecce told CP24 Breakfast in an interview Thursday morning.  “You know ultimately, notwithstanding the strike notice, we can still have productive conversations at the table and that's what I'm trying to do.”

The Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) announced Wednesday that it had given the mandatory five days notice for strike action after renewed bargaining fell apart.

The union represents custodial staff, educational assistants, administrative staff and other workers.

Workers and the government had come back to the table following a brief strike earlier this month. The strike ended when the Ford government agreed to rescind legislation which barred the workers from striking and used the Notwithstanding Clause to head off any possible constitutional challenges against their legislation.

The Ford government’s move sparked an outcry from labour groups and even prompted Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to call the move inappropriate.

The union has said since that the two sides recently agreed to a 3.59 per cent wage increase, but that CUPE is still not happy with staffing levels for their workers.

“From the beginning, this bargaining has been about the chronically low wages of those workers, but it has also been about the services in schools,” CUPE Ontario President Fred Hahn told CP24 Thursday.

He said the jobs the union is fighting for need to be there "so students have the support they need to succeed.”

Hahn said the talks fell apart again because “it's difficult to bargain with yourself.”

“You know, the government basically said this is it, this is all we got. And you know, there's been movement -- they had to move because of the outpouring of support that was there because of their massive overreach with Bill 28, with invoking the notwithstanding clause.

“All of that crisis that happened just a few weeks ago was unnecessary, just like what's happening now is unnecessary. There are resources available. The financial accountability officer says there's a budget surplus, there are ways in which the government could make these investments and actually help schools that actually help our kids. And that's really now the focus of bargaining for our folks.”

For his part, Lecce said the government has done what was asked of it by repealing the law and agreeing to better wages and is disappointed that the union is striking again.

Lecce also said that he believes that compensation remains “the fundamental fault line” in negotiations, despite CUPE’s insistence that it is no longer a major issue.

“We want to get the kids on track and we want to get them support to catch up but it all starts with them being in school,” he said. “And that's why I think we're very disappointed by the decision of the union to proceed with the strike again only a few weeks after the last one.”

Both sides have cast themselves as fighting for children in the labour dispute, but parents and kids have been left in the middle. A number of school boards have said they are finalizing plans for virtual learning in the event that the strike proceeds Monday.